Local government, Uncategorized

Funding to study Malheur County Courthouse remodeling remains elusive

VALE – The fate of a $250,000 request to state and federal legislators to help county officials solve a lack of space problem at the Malheur County Courthouse is in limbo until next year.

In January the Malheur County Court – Judge Dan Joyce and Commissioners Ron Jacobs and Jim Mendiola – wrote to the Legislature requesting the money.

The letter was addressed to State Sen. Elizabeth Steiner, D-Portland, the chair of the Joint Committee on Ways and Means, Rep. Mark Owens, R-Crane, Sen. Lynn Findley, R-Vale.

They also wrote to U.S. Rep. Cliff Bentz, R-Oregon.

The money was to be used to develop evaluate space challenges at the courthouse. Space is limited in the building, built in 1958, with the issue especially acute for the Malheur County Circuit Court.

The circuit court outgrew its space years ago and major trials can only be conducted in a single courtroom. There are two courtrooms. The larger courtroom can accommodate a trial but Courtroom 2 is too small for jury trials. That impacts the efficiency of the justice system in terms of timely trials, said Circuit Judge Lung Hung.

The courthouse also houses several county offices, including the county clerk, assessor, treasurer and planning.

The letter outlined the confined spaces at the courthouse and the circuit court where “overcrowding is rampant, with courtrooms overflowing and essential security features lacking.”

“This not only creates logistical nightmares and delays but also undermines the very foundation of a fair and accessible justice system,” the letter said.

The Legislature, though, didn’t provide any funding its last session which ended in March.

Findley and Owens sponsored House Bill 2497 during the session to ease the space problem. The bill would have paid for assessing courthouses in small counties and would have required the state to build new courthouses as necessary. The bill did not pass.

Hung said last week that officials are working on a second route for more funds through the Association of Oregon Counties.

“The AOC (Association of Oregon Counties) makes recommendations and those recommendations are submitted to the chief justice of the Oregon Supreme Court. Then the chief chooses them to submit to the Legislature as part of a requested budget package,” he said.

However, he said that request from the chief justice would not be made until fall at the earliest. He said the Association of Oregon Counties put “Malheur County as No. 1 of the counties requesting funds.”

Hung said now officials contemplate building a new facility for court offices and then the county would then use vacated space in the current courthouse.

He emphasized that no plan has been finalized and will not be until funding is available.

“The plan is not to knock down the current courthouse,” he said.

New tip? Contact reporter Pat Caldwell at [email protected]

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